Resurrection of Body vs Reincarnation of Soul

Posted by on Jan 23, 2022

When thinking of “resurrection” and “the world to come”, many people do not realize that there are different concepts behind these words, and if we add the term “reincarnation” the things become even more complicated.

In this introduction to the matter of the resurrection of the body and the reincarnation of the soul, we would like to clarify certain concepts in Judaism that the rabbis have written about, but still their controversy has not been properly understood. In order to clarify these questions in their entirety, we must initially make some inquiries about resurrection and reincarnation.

A good departure point to describing the controversy between the resurrection of the body and the reincarnation of the soul is to explain concept of resurrection.

Concept of resurrection of the body 

There are many people who are wondering why such an important concept, such as the resurrection, has not been spelled out in the written Torah in detail. Seeing that the Torah has spelled out in detail many less important concepts, sometimes repeating them several times, the failure to spell out the concept of resurrection of the dead is considered especially puzzling. The fact is that Torah indeed addresses first and foremost terrestrial matters of concern to us, not the heaven.

If the reader has been perplexed by this observation, he or she is not the only one. In fact, this is what Rabbeinu Bahya wrote on Deu 32:43. He says that all the targets described by Mosheh in the Torah are primarily of interest to our physical existence on earth in accordance with the Torah’s laws. When people realize that these targets have been met and realized, he wrote, they will be more likely to accept on faith promises which by their very nature cannot be proven while they are one earth. For the reasons mentioned, the Torah understandably was very brief in its allusions to matters whose fulfillment lies beyond our present life on earth. Thus far Rabbeinu Bahya.

And indeed, the Torah is occupied with giving direction (Hebrew, Torah) as to how to conduct our lives here on the earth, not how to get to heaven. In fact, the only time the term “heaven” is mentioned in the Tanach is in Gen 1:1. Afterwards, it is all about life here on the earth: from Genesis to the last prophet. Then, the concept of “heaven” comes back to prominence in the Apostolic Writings with its culmination in the last chapter of Revelation.

In the following we will explain the views of two of the most revered rabbis on the subject: Maimonides and Nachmanides. While they both discuss the afterlife and agree that life after death is the “End of Days”, they disagree on the nature of existence in the “End of Days” after the Messianic period.

The first explicit mention of resurrection is the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. But as we explained in the article The Ordained Time for Messiah’s Return — Part 1 this narrative was intended for the national rebirth of Israel in the Promised Land, and the reconstruction of the Third Temple, not as a description of general resurrection, which is described in more details in Daniel 12. 

The sages are divided into two schools of thought.

The school of thought of Maimonides

Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon (Maimonides) constitutes the belief in the resurrection of the dead as the last of the thirteen articles of faith that every Israelite must have; that is, faith that the dead will return a second time to enjoy a bodily life.

His followers hold that the righteous receive in this world the reward for their deeds, but the main reward is spiritual, bestowed upon the soul alone in the World to Come. The term “the World to Come” (the phrase “world to come”, olam ha-ba, does not occur in the Hebrew Scripture) refers to a world in which a person goes after death.

According to Maimonides, this is a world in which there is no eating or drinking or any of the physical pleasures, but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the splendor of the heavenly Presence.

The World to Come comes right after this world, because it comes right after death for everyone, before the days of the Messiah and before resurrection. In this sense, “the World to Come” is viewed as in the act of coming, namely for every righteous man immediately after death but before resurrection. Then, the resurrection and after the resurrection there is an ultimate degree to which man rises again, which is also called “the World to Come”.

At the resurrection in the time of the Messiah, the righteous will receive their rewards or acquire a higher perfection than before. What should give us pause, however, is that according to this school of thought, the righteous will die again, and the souls will enjoy the future world in a higher degree than the one they enjoyed before resurrection. This “second death” is not to be confused with the phenomenon of “second death” in Rev 2:11, Rev 20:6, 14, and Rev 21:8, though.

It appears therefore that, according to this theory, there are four different periods of reward: 1. This world. 2. The World to Come after death and before resurrection. 3. The days of the Messiah. 4. Resurrection and the World to Come after resurrection.

These rewards are all different from each other and they are viewed as follows: (1) some righteous, who have achieved high level of perfection, receive reward in all these four periods, (2) others are rewarded in this world only, i.e., the wicked so that they may be punished in the next, (3) then there are good people who have not the privilege of receiving reward in this world, but they enjoy life in the World to Come right after death, but not resurrection; (4) then there are some who have the privilege of resurrection also, and some who merit the days of the Messiah also.

The view of Maimonides is that the people resurrected [in the first resurrection] will lead normal lives, will eat and drink, and produce children. These functions with which the Creator has equipped them will not cease. They will live exceptionally long lives, after which they will die a physical death and continue a life of the spirit in the World to Come.

While his position on the World to Come of non-corporeal eternal life may be seen as being in contradiction with his position on bodily resurrection, Maimonides resolved this contradiction with the solution according to which the resurrection was not permanent. In this view, any resurrected person must eventually die again. He says nothing of a universal resurrection. All he says is that whenever resurrection takes place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the World to Come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual.

In other views, Maimonides describes the World to Come as the stage after life in this world as well as the final state of existence after the Messianic Era. Sometime after the resurrection of the dead, souls will live forever without bodies. They will enjoy the life in the second World to Come without the need for food, drink or sexual pleasures. This is what we read in Mishneh Torah, Repentance 9:1.

This is the view of Maimonides and those who adopted his opinion.

However, the sages of the Talmud are of a different opinion.

The school of thought of Nachmanides 

Mosheh ben Nachman (Nachmanides) holds that as the Eternal is eminently just, there must be reward and punishment which must take place in another world. He teaches that the soul is a direct emanation from the Creator. Through man the soul enters this world, and at death it either returns to its original source in heaven or enters the body of another man (reincarnation): all depends on whether it has accomplished its mission. According to his belief, the resurrection of the dead at the coming of the Messiah, is referred to the body. The physical body of the resurrection may through the influence of the soul, transform itself into an eternal body.

There will be no more death after the resurrection, according to Isa 25:8, “He shall swallow up death forever”, and Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 92a: “The righteous, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, will resurrect, will not revert to dust”. This refers to the interval between the Messianic era and the time of the World to Come; but their flesh will remain intact upon them until they live again in the future.

This school of thought teaches that though the righteous get some material reward in this world, they should receive in the next world material as well as spiritual rewards. According to them, this will come after the resurrection when the soul and the body reunite, but the resurrected will live without food and water in what they call “the World to Come”.

This makes it obvious that there will be bodies in the World to Come, but many bodily functions as we know them will cease to operate, just as they ceased for Mosheh and Eliyahu, who were in the Presence of the Eternal. What all this means is simply that in the powers of the soul will triumph over the body and its needs.

In other words, according to this concept, just as the disembodied soul can function in this terrestrial life, there is no reason to believe that the body cannot function in the celestial life.

Nachmanides also teaches that the human soul does not die when the body dies, since the soul is a part of the Eternal but that it goes in a stage of existence called Gan Eden (Paradise) until they rise in resurrection and obtain new life in the World to Come. According to Nachmanides, Gan Eden must be after this world and not life in the World to Come, which is the last stage.

Nachmanides also teaches that souls were created together with the primeval light on the first day of creation.

The foundation upon which the advocates of this second opinion base their idea is that the World to Come is a degree of reward which a man cannot attain until after the resurrection. From this they inferred that the World to Come, which is the main reward, comes after the resurrection of the dead and only to those who deserve resurrection.

Therefore, this highest and last degree—life in the World to Come—no one can attain except the righteous only and after the resurrection. This opinion is held by Nachmanides and his disciples.

The opponents of Nachmanides hold the objection that his opinion is close to the Christian view on the matter of resurrection and afterlife.

Afflictions from the reincarnation of the soul

The simple definition of the term “reincarnation” is this: embodiment in a new form especially the reappearance of a person in another body.

This definition may lead the reader to the well-known doctrine of reincarnation in the eastern religions, i.e., the Hindu and Buddhist doctrines, according to which, a person may be reborn successively into one of five classes of living beings (god or human or animal or ghost or denizen of Hell) depending on the person’s own actions in the previous life or lives. According to these religions, the reincarnation ceases and the soul finds rest only when it has accomplished its mission in the previous lives. We will not discuss these religions.

But, the reader may be surprised to learn that a similar concept of reincarnation exists in Judaism. Even though the rabbis are very strong on reincarnation, they admit that it is not in the Hebrew Scripture much less in the Torah.

Where the doctrine of reincarnation can be found, however, is in the Zohar composed in Spain, c.1100 – c.1400 CE. The Zohar (which means “splendor” or “radiance”) is a group of books of commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah and the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.

Based on this mystical work the kabbalists derived the doctrine of transmigration (the passing of a soul into another body after death) arguing that the soul is not a material power but an independent substance. Then, according to them, just as the soul entered the human body when it was created, it is possible that after having functioned in one human body, it may transmigrate and live in another body.

But that compels us to consider the questions: Why should a soul that has already functioned in one human body return into another body again? And why should a body receive a soul which has already functioned in another body rather than to receive a new soul which has not functioned in a body at all?

According to this mystical interpretation of certain passages in the Torah, the soul comes to this world at various times in different bodies. And through its reincarnation, it may repair itself what it corrupted in a previous life, or perfect what it did not perfect. However, at the end of all the incarnations, the judgement will regard the soul, according to all of the incarnations that it experienced. This is what the kabbalists call “afflictions to a man from the reincarnation of his soul”. And the kabbalists say that man cannot remember the past lives. Indeed!

For instance, Or HaChaim on Gen 1:26 says that based on Zohar, Shemot 94b “through the actions of man, he descends in his elevation, from the level of man to the level of fish to the level of birds to the level of animals to the level of swarming creatures. According to the severity of the sin, man goes down from the level of his elevation until he descends lower and lower …”

We can understand what Or HaChaim is saying, but Gen 1:26 is hardly parallel to his interpretation. Now, the reader may want to go to Gen 1:26 and see whether this verse even hints to such a “reincarnation” of the soul.

And if he or she asks the intelligent question, namely, “On the Day of Judgment, to which body the soul will be restored? the kabbalists’ answer is that the soul of the departed body will be restored to its original owner, which could have lived thousands of years before, and each person will resume his or her original role in the universe. According to this theory, the soul returns to the original body even though the last body had accomplished the sought level of righteousness.

It is not clear though whether the soul can change the sexes of the bodies in the course of reincarnations. But since the soul can become even a fish, it appears that it is possible.

We will address the first of these below and offer the other for the reader’s consideration. Meanwhile we will have one more question to ask. Since the rabbis admit that what they call “reincarnation” is not in the Torah, is there any verse to disprove this doctrine?

We find an interesting passage in a book that rebuffs the concept of “reincarnation”. This book is not in the Tanach, nor in the Christian Bible. This book was written by the disciple of the prophet Jeremiah.

We believe that the passage we will read below undoubtedly disprove “reincarnation”. We will read from the Book of the Apocalypse of Baruch the son of Neriah, translated from the Syriac by R. H. Charles (Oxford University Press, 1913). The words of his epistle (aka 2 Baruch) Baruch sent to the nine and a half tribes of Israel, who dwelled across the River Euphrates (2 Baruch 78:1-2).

YHVH answered Baruch thus,

I remember those who are appointed to come. Because when Adam sinned and death was decreed against those who should be born, then the multitude of those who should be born was numbered, and for that number a place was prepared where the living might dwell, and the dead might be guarded. Before therefore the number aforesaid is fulfilled, the creature will not live again [for My spirit is the creator of life], and sheol will receive the dead. 2 Baruch 23

According to the verse above, there were three things the Eternal created after sin entered the world and it was decreed that mankind would not live forever. They were: (1) a certain number of people that should be born, (2) a place wherein the people should live, and (3) a place where the people should return to after death.

But what we need to pay attention to is the last statement, for where it is said: “Before therefore the number aforesaid is fulfilled, the creature will not live again”, the Creator decreed that no living creature (man included) would be resurrected, reincarnated, or come back to life by any means before that pre-set number had been fulfilled.

In plain words, the Eternal decreed that every human being was unique and destined to be born, live, and die only once; then the resurrection. If that explanation is accepted, then we will have no more to say upon this point presently and the issue of “reincarnation” has no bearing on us to prove our point.

In conclusion, shall we say that there is reincarnation? Given that incarnation means “embodiment” (from Latin carnalis, “flesh”, “body”), there is incarnation. But the Scripture calls it a resurrection of the body, a second or new birth of the body, as we explained in Born Again or Born from Above of Time of Reckoning Ministry.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our day!